, , ,

I don’t want my blog posts to become all about the big issues or be known as the boring blogger who only talks about serious stuff. But I am going to talk about something pretty serious today.

Today’s post was inspired by a little shopping I did on the weekend. I had boasted to my sister on Facebook about a cute sleep shirt from K-Mart bought a few weeks ago. It has a bad owl pun on it (“Owl I need is sleep” – both a pun and a Beatles reference #winning). She loves owls so when she expressed her envy I offered to buy her one as well, they only cost $6. I bought her a slightly different version (pun – “Hoo loves you?”) and felt pretty happy with myself about the purchase in general. Awesome older sister award nominations would surely be flowing in.

This got me to thinking about the cost of the garment and how it could possibly be made at below cost, even the original ticketed price ($7) was well below what I would have thought such a garment could realistically be made and shipped to an Australian store for. For once I didn’t stop at that point, I turned to the Google and I asked it what was going on here.

I think if we were all honest we would say we all sort of know what is going on, there is enough talk about it in the media and pop culture for you to have to be bordering on the side of “complete and utter moron” to not realise that someone is making a lot of money from the sale of clothes and it is unlikely to be the people (in some cases children) making them. I for one have never heard of a person becoming rich by personally making the clothes for sale in K-Mart or Target or even Myer.

As for what exactly is happening here, it’s complicated, but the basic story is that clothing companies typically out source clothing production and the companies who get those contracts then on sell part or all of the contract to third, fourth or fifth parties. These third etc parties are looking to make as much profit as possible on the manufacture of the garments and are often responsible for either not providing workshops that would meet Australian safety standards, not providing a liveable wage or allowing people to work in very poor conditions in their own homes. “Outworkers” is how this second group of workers is often referred too. It sounds a bit like modern day slavery, the practise is to deliberately marginalize workers to avoid them unionizing and consistently underpay them (granted paying them is a little less slave-y). The thing I didn’t know about this is that outworkers exist in Australia and that many respected Australian brands use them

The subject of cost is a tricky one as is the one of blame. Of the sites I looked at most were keen not to put blame directly on particular clothing Brands, insisting that the blame was shared across the industry. They also point out that both high fashion and budget clothing chain stores are guilty of taking advantage of exploitative labour practices. The impact of fair wear on potential cost of clothing to consumers was not explored in depth and the reason is probably a “good” one, it’s not something any of us want to hear. No one wants to be told that the luxuries of relatively cheap clothing as well as high end fashion are made possible by an industry wide disregard for human rights and labour standards.

I’d heard about ethical fashion brands before and thought that the label mostly applied to companies who made things out of hemp or were fringe dwellers in the industry, dismissing them in my mind because its easier to live with a pleasing lie than a disquieting truth. I guess I really didn’t want to push the issue too much because I might not like the answer. When I did a little digging I found that I liked it even less than I could have originally predicted. In less than 5 minutes I found an Australian and an International campaign to end the exploitation of workers in the clothing industry where I could find a list of the companies who are accredited as clothing brands who comply with the fair wear philosophy (so simple!). When I checked the lists of Brands who were accredited * I didn’t find a single brand I personally have in my wardrobe.

*For the sake of clarity not every brand that seeks to use ethical labour sources will be on the list, some companies who do so may not have sought accreditation.

My initial reaction was “Ah crap!” and I wondered if I would be able to get anything even close to my size or style preferences from the brands on the list and the short answer is no. Since my workplace is not clothing optional (thank the great flying spaghetti monster) I don’t have much choice but to keep wearing clothes made for brands that are not accredited. I doubt my friends would be too impressed by me making my home or our social gatherings clothing optional either so ultimately I decided not to throw anything out.

So what can we do; well the first step is education, find out as much as you can and have an informed opinion. Then if someone says that it isn’t an issue in Australia or that brand “XYZ” does not support exploitative labour practises you can actually help them get their facts straight or tell them where they can check the lists of companies out.

Step two is direct action and it is not going to be easy to do this part. There are two ways to proceed, firstly thank any fair wear retailers and support them by buying clothes from them when you can. Secondly email your favourite brands and ask them if they have sought accreditation. It may be the case that they would be eligible for it but have never applied, it may be that they are doing their best to produce good quality, affordable clothes and have just never thought about the people at the other end or didn’t know their consumers cared.

Finally, the whole situation needs to change and real change has to include lobbying for better legislation. I’m not even sure how I plan on going about seeking that or that I will realistically carry my plan through to that point.

Of course your reaction might be that this is too much effort or not your problem or even that bringing it up makes you uncomfortable and you’d wish I’d stop. I see where you are coming from and frankly I agree, emailing all my favourite brands this morning, asking them if they had rules in place to avoid worker exploitation, were their production facilities up to Australian or international standards, had they considered accreditation and if not, why not took time. Time I could have spent sleeping until the very last second or straightening my hair or eating a proper breakfast (to be fair I probably wasn’t going to do that last one regardless of circumstances). I did it anyway because I want to wear clothes that no one had to sacrifice their health, safety or a chance at earning a liveable wage to make.

I will still give my sister her sleep shirt and I will still wear mine but I’ll look for an alternative in the future and hope that makes a difference.

How do you feel about this topic? Will you do something about it?